Archaeologists study antiquity, or ancient things. Archaeology is considered a science, though “not an exact or exclusive discipline,” in that by necessity it interacts and merges with many other disciplines, like geography, history, ceramics, numismatics, language, etc. This kind of study is able to retrieve “significant aspects of the past, which can greatly enhance our understanding of history and culture.”
Archaeology is beneficial to biblical studies in several ways. To name a few, the discipline can help to verify biblical history, provide background information, and even inform biblical interpretation. Archaeology can illumine, or put simply, “bring the Bible to life,” so to speak. Though archaeology and biblical studies are different disciplines, they are friends. To illustrate this point, I will provide below just a few of my favorite examples of archaeology’s intersection with the New Testament.
A Second-Century Inscription Found at Thessalonica (cf. Acts 17:6, 8)
The first example shows how archaeology can help to verify biblical history. The Greek inscription above, now inside the British Museum in London, England, was discovered at Thessalonica and dates to the second century A.D. The inscription lists six “politarchs” among other officials. In the first century, Luke correctly used the same word in Acts 17:6, 8 to refer to city officials in Thessalonica, though for years many scholars claimed that he was wrong in referring to politarchs. However, this Greek inscription found at Thessalonica helped to correct the misconception that Luke was mistaken.
A Jerusalem Temple Warning Inscription (cf. Ephesians 2:14; Acts 21:27-30)
The next example shows how archaeology can provide background information and help to inform biblical interpretation. The temple warning inscription above is located inside the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. This stone marker was located in the outer court of the Jerusalem temple platform and warned Gentiles not to enter the inner court area of the temple on penalty of death. The inscription dates from the first century and would have been present in Jesus’ day. Compare Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:14—“For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility” (NET; italics mine).
Paul talked about peace between Jews and Gentiles at the same time he talked about reconciliation to God (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10). A literal barrier existed between Jews and Gentiles. In the Jerusalem temple was a series of concentric courts. The outer court was called the Court of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were allowed to go no further than that. Within it was the Court of Israel, and around that court a barrier included warnings that forbade Gentiles to cross the boundary and enter the temple proper. The rigid centuries-old distinction between Jews and Gentiles was symbolized by this barrier. When Paul talked about the wall in Ephesians 2:14, he might well have had in mind this real physical picture of separation. At one point in his ministry, Paul got into trouble in Jerusalem for supposedly bringing a Gentile across the barrier into the forbidden area (cf. Acts 21:27–30). However, though a solid physical barrier, it only symbolized the real barrier, which was the Jewish law with its many rules and regulations (Ephesians 2:15)—things that people had to keep if they wanted to belong to God’s people. Now, Paul wrote, Christ has broken that barrier down (Ephesians 2:14)! So, no longer is there an exclusive part of the temple. No longer does a law discriminate between Jews and Gentiles. God has made both groups into one new people. Through Christ, His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:15).
The Roman Triumph (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 and Colossians 2:15)
[Photos 1 and 2]
Roman triumphs were spectacular parades decreed by the city of Rome to celebrate great conquests; to honor the emperors, generals or consuls who achieved those victories; and to give thanks to the deity who bestowed them. The triumph’s central focus in the procession was the person being honored as victor and savior (sōtēr as “one who brings good fortune”). He rode in a chariot, typically pulled by four horses (called a quadrigo; see Photos 1 and 2). The triumphator was “dressed in a purple gown, wore a tunic stitched with gold motifs and had a crown upon his head.” The victor’s face “would be painted red and he carried an eagle-crowned scepter in his hand,” which elements were “taken from Jupiter’s depiction” in Rome’s most important temple, the Jupiter Capitolinus, where the parade ended with sacrifices and thanksgiving offered on behalf of Rome. The honoree in the triumph would be surrounded by soldiers and displays of the spoils of war (see Photo 3), with subjugated captives being mockingly paraded as slaves, many of whom would be put to death. Paul used the imagery of the Roman triumph metaphorically in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 and Colossians 2:15 to portray God as “the sole, divine ruler and sovereign victor over his enemies.” Consider the words of Colossians 2:15, “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (NASB).
The Great Theater at Ephesus, the Goddess Artemis and Her Temple (cf. Acts 19:23-41)
[Photos 1 and 2]
The two pictures above are of the Great Theater at Ephesus; the one on the right was taken from the very top. The theater seated about 25,000 people and has fantastic acoustics. The ruin is located opposite the harbor street near the city’s south entrance. The theater is mentioned in Acts 19:23-41, which gives the account of a riot against Paul.
Ephesian craftsmen and silversmiths who made silver shrine replicas of Artemis and her temple opposed Paul and the Gospel. During this time in Ephesus, Demetrius became infuriated over dwindling shrine trade, undoubtedly affecting his livelihood, and incited a crowd to drag away Paul’s Macedonian traveling companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, before an assembly of Ephesians in the city’s theater (Acts 19:24-29). Paul wanted to appear before the assembly in the theater as well, no doubt in an effort to help, “but the disciples would not let him” do so (Acts 19:30). When it looked like Gaius and Aristarchus would be killed, the city clerk urged the assembly not to do anything rash because the men had neither robbed temples nor blasphemed Artemis (Acts 19:37). He advised the crowd that if Demetrius and the craftsmen had complaints or charges, then they should follow due process on those matters through the available judicial means (Acts 19:38-39). To do otherwise, he warned, ran the risk of being charged with rioting and inviting Roman reprisal since they had no reason to justify their disorderly gathering (Acts 19:40). After speaking, “he dismissed the assembly” (Acts 19:41).
During the height of the uproar over Paul and his associates, the Jews pushed forward Alexander, one of their own, to give a defense before the assembly in the theater (Acts 19:33). Their motive was apparently to distance themselves from the tumult caused by the Christians. However, when Alexander sought to make his defense, the mob would have none of it. The crowd knew that Jews opposed Artemis, and when they recognized Alexander as a Jew, they all shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” in the Great Theater (Photos 1 and 2 above) for about two hours (Acts 19:34).
Roman coins are helpful in providing background information about this first-century cultural context. For example, “Claudius issued a series of silver cistophorii in A.D. 50-51 to celebrate his marriage to Agrippina the Younger. These coins reflect on their reverse evocative portrayals of the temple of Diana [Artemis] in Ephesus, including the cultic statue of the goddess.” As seen at the beginning of this section, disputes over replicas of Artemis’ statute and her temple, reflected on the coin’s reverse (Photo 3 below), are what led to Paul’s conflict with Demetrius and the silversmiths.
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J.R. McRay, “Archaeology and the New Testament.” Pages 93–100 in Dictionary of New Testament Background (eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 93.
By this, I do not mean definitively prove or disprove our theological assertions.
Unless indicated otherwise, translations are my own.
S.J. Hafemann, “Roman Triumph.” Pages 1004–1008 in Dictionary of New Testament Background (eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 1004.
Coins and relief panels provide tremendous insights into ancient history and culture. The photo of the gold coin called an aureus (Photo 1, left) with Titus Caesar’s image on the front and shown on the reverse in triumphal quadriga was borrowed from http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/titus/RIC_0370[vesp].jpg; accessed April 18, 2017. The photo of the relief panel (Photo 2, right) is from the Arch of Titus, dedicated in A.D. 81 to celebrate the emperor’s victory in the Jewish War of A.D. 66–74, which featured the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70. The image was borrowed from http://www.ancient.eu/uploads/images/1286.jpg?v=1485680457; accessed April 18, 2017.
Hafemann, “Roman Triumph,” 1005.
In this relief panel scan from the Arch of Titus (Photo 3), Roman soldiers parade the Jerusalem Temple’s spoils of war in the Roman triumph. The image is part of the Yeshiva University Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project and was found at http://cdn.biblicalarchaeology.org/wp-content/uploads/imperial-city-3.jpg?x10423; accessed April 18, 2017.
Hafemann, “Roman Triumph,” 1005.
L.J. Kreitzer, “Coinage: Greco-Roman.” Pages 220–22 in Dictionary of New Testament Background (eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 221. The insert is mine; Diana is the Roman name for Artemis.
The silver cistophorus has Claudius’ image with the coin reverse showing the temple of Diana (Artemis), which includes her cultic statue (Photo 3); coin photo borrowed from https://www.acsearch.info/media/images/archive/93/2617/2710672.s.jpg; accessed April 19, 2017.